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What is Burnout?

The Origins

The term burnout is used a lot these days, but what IS burnout? Who is at risk and what can we do to prevent it? Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s  was one of the founders of the concept. It was originally applied only to the workplace but has expanded now to the whole of our lives – including parenting and caring responsibilities – anything where we need to care and invest. Initial research found that there are three key factors:

  • Depersonalisation, where we separate ourselves emotionally from our work instead of investing ourselves and feeling that it’s meaningful
  • A decreased sense of accomplishment,  where we are working harder and harder for less and less feeling that what we are doing is making any difference
  • Emotional exhaustion

Who Experiences Burnout?

Anyone, of any age, can experience it, and we all experience burnout differently. However, over the 50 years since this original formulation, gender differences have been found: for men, burnout tends to manifest as depersonalisation  – separating ourselves emotionally from a situation. For women, burnout tends to manifest as emotional exhaustion.

A Simpler Definition – Emily and Amelia Nagoski

I came across the Nagoski sisters, in a podcast with Brene Brown, where they talked about their personal experiences and their book  Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Both the podcast, and the book (and the YouTube videos about the topic) are superb – I have recommended them to many people and always received good feedback. 

The Nagoski sisters say: “Our layperson’s definition of burnout is that feeling of being overwhelmed and exhausted by everything you have to do, while still worrying that you’re not doing enough.  “Burnout” is not a medical diagnosis, it’s not a mental illness. It’s a condition related to overwhelming stress.” However, they say “If you feel like you are struggling even to get out of bed and get the basics done, that goes beyond burnout” and requires urgent medical attention.


One of the most important issues, according to the Nagoskis, is the difference between our stressors, (the things that cause us stress) and stress itself. Stressors are the complicated lives, the unmeetable goals and expectations, the commute to work, worries about the future, family and relationships and money … Most of our stressors are what are called “chronic stressors”. They are there, day after day, week after week, year after year. BUT, we don’t have to wait for our stressors to be gone before we can begin to feel better, because we can deal with the stress while the stressors still exist. 

What is Stress?

Stress is the physiological impact on our bodies to any perceived threat. Evolutionarily, the threat response as being is what we know as the fight, flight, freeze response intended to help us run away from a hungry predator.  Our bodies are filled with energy, with adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones, and every body system – including digestion, immune system, brain – gets on board in order to save our lives. Once the threat is over, and the hungry predator has moved on, we go back to our tribe, we feel that sense of safety and connection and our bodies can relax. The stress cycle is complete. 

Our modern day lives don’t include being chased by hungry predators but our bodies still respond in the same way in response to being stuck in a traffic jam, an important work meeting being interrupted by a call from our child’s school to say that they are ill, an unexpected bill puts our bank account into the red – the same cortisol, adrenalin, digestion slowing down etc.  in our bodies. We sit down at the end of a long day, and we may sigh with relief that we dealt with the stressors of that day pretty well – but that does not mean that we have dealt with the stress itself. 

The Physical Impact of Stress

During periods of prolonged stress, our bodies can go into a more or less continuous state of fight or flight, with little or no time for the adrenal glands to rest and recover. This will lead to adrenal exhaustion with symptoms of fatigue, brain fog, cravings for sugary or salty foods, headaches, mood swings etc. Eventually, there will be little, or no adrenaline being produced to give us the energy we need. 

Cortisol assists in stressful situations by increasing the available sugars in the bloodstream, enhancing our brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. 

It also raises our heart rate and blood pressure and suppresses bodily functions that would be non-essential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation – e.g. digestion. Sustained cortisol production may lead to a failure of cortisol’s protective role, leading to high blood pressure, lowered immunity, inflammation, weight gain and even diabetes.

How to Recover from Burnout

The secret is to deal with the stress response cycle, described above. We have to allow our bodies to know that it had a beginning, a middle, and ultimately an END. We have to separate dealing with the stress from dealing with the thing that caused the stress. The stress is in our physical bodies – the muscle tension, the shallow breathing, the discomfort in our gut. We have to somehow change our body’s physiological state from fight, flight or freeze, into one of safety.

My next few blogs will look more at this. In the meantime, the following links take you to talks on burnout by the Nagoski sisters, all of which I highly recommend:     For the Burned Out, Fried and Exhausted   

Book: Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski


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See also: BurnoutStress and BurnoutPrevent Burnout